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Creative Principles and Elements of Art

Creative Principles and Elements of Art
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A series of simple design exercises to further understanding of the Principles of Design and how each can be developed within a structured composition.

By Ruth Hand [Ruth is an art educator at Middle School in Emmetsburg, Iowa]


Students will:

  • Review the basic Principles of Design (balance, unity, movement, rhythm, pattern, contrast and emphasis).
  • Understand each principle more completely.
  • Provide “aerobic exercise” for the right side of their brain.

What You Need:

What You Do:

View the video. Students may take notes if desired. Afterwards, review the information discussed by having groups of 2-3 students take one of the seven principles posters and present it to the class emphasizing two or three important points talked about in the film.

Pass out 15-25 small-size sheets of the white typing paper for each series of designs that students will be working on. They can identify their own sheets by using pencil to mark initials on the back side. Make sure each student has, or can share, at least 4-6 colored pencil point markers for variety. (Large markers are too clumsy and do not make as neat a design.)

Do a quick review of the elements of design (specifically line, color, space). Explain to students that they will be creating a series of designs, first using dots, then lines, and finally, a combination of both. Each design should illustrate at least three or more of the principles they have discussed. Stress that, while designs need not necessarily fill the entire paper, they must be complete and well developed as space is an important consideration. Also, all designs must be totally abstract; no recognizable objects, shapes, letters, numbers, symbols, etc. are allowed.

Discuss and establish some basic criteria for each group of designs. The following work well for DOT DESIGNS (define a dot as the beginning of a line, regardless of its size):

  • use only two colors per design (keep it simple).
  • dots must be round and colored solid.
  • dots within each design should vary in size (change can be sudden or gradual but is important for providing contrast, thereby avoiding “chicken tracking”).
  • dots may “follow the leader,” touch, overlap, stack on top of each other, run off the edge of the paper, etc.

Dot Design Examples Dot Design Examples
Dot Design Examples

Basic criteria for LINE DESIGNS might include the following:

  • use only two or three colors per design.
  • lines should begin thin, grow in thickness and return to a thin line again…or run off the paper (so they remain lines instead of becoming shapes).
  • lines should vary in length (short, medium, long) and may expand/contract in any form or direction.
  • lines may be straight, curved, zigzag, twist; cross over, build on top of or weave under and through each other, etc.


Line Design Examples Line Design Examples Line Design Examples Line Design Examples

Line Design Examples

All of the above criteria apply to DOT/LINE DESIGN combinations. Limit each design to three colors to ensure that the designs do not become more about color than about design. Make certain students understand that this is a form of brainstorming and there is no “right/wrong.” Designs that appear to be incomplete can always have something added. Encourage them to relax and let their right brain take over. Explain that, often, our best ideas come when we “space out” or daydream while doodling.

Dot/Line Design Examples Dot/Line Design Examples

Dot/Line Design Examples

Tell students to look for new ways that dots and/or lines can be drawn or interact with each other and still remain dots and lines. If they do come up with something new, for example, dots passing through each other, have a round table discussion to reach consensus that it still meets basic criteria. These discussions can grow into interesting exchanges as students take positions and offer differing opinions/explanations as to why they believe some designs may or may not pass muster. Focus on constructive criticism.

As designs are completed, they should be laid out on the tables in front of students for continual reference. Midway through each class, allow students to take a break, not only to rest their right brain, but also so they may walk around and observe the work of others. This provides opportunity for “idea building,” especially for those students who get “stuck in a rut.” Stress the fact that if they see another design they really like, they can create a similar one by changing or adding to it rather than copying.

Original design and Expanded ideas created from original Original design and Expanded ideas created from original

Original design and expanded ideas created from original

When each design series is completed, have students choose what they consider to be their best designs to represent each principle and lay them out in separate marked areas. Again, have round table discussions as to the merits of various designs. Students should name the principles they see illustrated and comment on what might be lacking in some designs, for example, no unity or contrast, unbalanced components, etc. Emphasize that the best designs may show all seven principles.

Ask students to point out designs which show:

  • unity between all parts of the design.
  • formal (symmetrical), informal (asymmetrical) and radial balance.
  • areas of movement and rhythm.
  • several different kinds of contrast.
  • any obvious patterns.
  • a focal point or center of interest.
  • all seven principles due to outstanding organization of the basic elements within the design.

Allow students to select their best designs for putting up in a large display area. Ask for volunteers or choose students to plan the arrangement and put it all together.

Follow up Activity:

Introduce students to the abstract styles of several different artists including Margo Hoff (Marathon, Street Music ), Piet Mondrian (Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue), Jackson Pollock (Full Fathom Five, Autumn Rhythm), Mark Tobey (Universal Field), and Henri Matisse (L’escargot, Beasts of the Sea, The Wine Press, Sorrows of the King). After viewing and discussing examples of each, have them create their own more complicated abstract design composition using geometric as well as organic lines and shapes and unlimited color choices. Provide a variety of medium, such as charcoal, India ink, colored pencil, oil pastels, tempera paint, and an assortment of different kinds of paper. Encourage students to use a combination of several of these. Have students write an evaluation of their completed work using what they learned from studying the Principles of Design.


Dot Line ExamplesDot Line Examples

Dot Line Examples

Dot/Line Design Examples Dot/Line Design Examples Dot/Line Design Examples

Dot/Line Design Examples


Principles and Elements of Design

Elements of Design

Principles of Design

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